Endangered species that lacks a competitive edge

A Dictionary of Environment and Conservation
April 20, 2007

In his landmark Dictionary of the English Language , first published in 1755, Samuel Johnson chose a rather unfortunate example to support his entry for "conservation". This was: "Though there do indeed happen some alterations in the globe, yet they are such as tend rather to the benefit and conservation of the earth, and its productions, than to the disorder and destruction of both."

More than 250 years later, and with human-induced climate change accelerating, we find ourselves in the midst of a period of global alteration where the tendency to disorder and destruction is all too apparent. What Johnson would say of climate change we can only guess, though no doubt he would be appalled at the inequalities represented by those nations least responsible for the problem having to take the brunt of its impacts.

The environment is big news. Levels of public awareness of key environmental issues such as global warming, habitat destruction and ozone depletion have reached unprecedented heights in recent years. The publication, then, of A Dictionary of Environment and Conservation is certainly timely. The author is a professor at Lancaster University and well suited to his task as lexicographer, a role that Johnson described as "slave of science, the pioneer of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths of Learning and Genius".

Environmental and conservation research are fast-moving areas; so, too, despite outward appearances, is related policy. Jargon and acronyms abound, and knowing your BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand) from your BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) is becoming increasingly important for students, researchers and policymakers alike. A Dictionary of Environment and Conservation contains more than 8,500 definitions, going far beyond what is available in even the most up-to-date versions of the standard English Dictionary. As such, it is a useful reference when navigating one's way through the latest policy document on diffuse pollution prevention or position statement on emissions trading. Reading it, though, was rather disquieting.

The cross-referencing within each entry is good, with related entries being signified by an asterisk but, and this may be a sign that I am using the web far too much, every time I wanted to look up a related term my instinct was to click on it. In this age of powerful web-based search engines such as Google and dynamic encyclopaedias such as Wikipedia, detailed information on just about any subject imaginable is just one mouse click away (Johnson's original dictionary, for example, can be searched at the excellent www.fab24.net/jd300905 ).

It's when you find the entry you're after that slight frustration turns into actual disappointment. While some key entries do have full-page descriptions, the depth they provide just can't compete with their online equivalents. Look up "carbon dioxide" and you get a relatively extensive entry: half a page of text. At first sight this is fine - it describes the properties of the gas itself, its role in the greenhouse effect and the recent and longer term changes in its atmospheric concentration. There are problems, however. First, there's the statement that "about 20 per cent of carbon dioxide comes from natural sources, the rest from human activities".

In fact, natural emissions of CO2 still dwarf our own, the former constituting about 200 billion tonnes of carbon a year and the latter, while undoubtedly on the increase, just 7 billion tonnes. Had this error been made in an online dictionary or encyclopaedia it would be quickly rectified. Here, it will go on misinforming readers for some considerable time. Also, there is no mention anywhere of Charles David Keeling (the modern-day father of carbon dioxide measurement) - I would argue that he deserves his own entry, let alone a mention under carbon dioxide.

Finally, there is still that nagging feeling of disappointment at one's inability to click straight through to extra information on topics such as "current carbon dioxide concentrations at Mauna Loa" or "the Vostok ice-core record". Yes, this is a dictionary, not an encyclopaedia. Nevertheless, it does all feel rather limited. Perhaps in an effort by the publisher to acknowledge the lurking bulk of image-heavy information provided on the web, there are 21 diagrams scattered throughout the book illustrating key processes and concepts. Some of these are very useful. Some, like that for the "carbon cycle", are so poorly reproduced as to be virtually unintelligible.

Oxford University Press has done the author a disservice by not providing a professional illustrator. One can imagine the frustration of writing such a dictionary as this, looking up information on an entry and finding that that which is already freely available online can never be satisfactorily reproduced within the confines of a few lines on a printed page.

This dictionary is fine, as far as it goes. It is broad enough to be of use to natural science students and detailed enough to help researchers and policymakers. The appendices make interesting reading, covering topics such as the Beaufort and Richter scales, as well as providing detailed tables showing which nation has ratified which environmental or conservation treaty. It is just hard to see why anyone with a computer and an internet connection would use it very much.

Printed books are great things. I love their smell, their feel, even the sound of their turning pages. Electronic publishing may come to dominate the world of books, but it will never wholly replace that dog-eared novel on the bedside table. For dead-tree dictionaries though, particularly subject-specific ones like this, what does the future hold? I'll leave it to A Dictionary of Environment and Conservation to sum up their current status: "Endangered: Something that is in danger of extinction if existing pressures on it continue, and which is therefore likely to disappear if it is not offered adequate protection."

David S. Reay is a Natural Environment Research Council fellow in the School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, UK. He is editor of GHGonline.org and author of Climate Change Begins at Home (Macmillan).

A Dictionary of Environment and Conservation

Author - Chris Park
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 528
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 978 0 19 860995 7

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